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the Capitals - Toronto and Ottawa

lots of shiny happy buildings on the east coast

sunny 18 °C
View Canadian Odyssey 2008 on tessab's travel map.

Toronto is an agglomeration of people, culture and urban villages that bleed together to form a diverse and beguiling city. As the biggest Canadian city (4.5 million people) it forms the cultural and economic epicentre of the country. The city itself tells that story - huge shining skyscrapers dominate the downtown financial district, and the number of contemporary architectural pieces (mostly in the form of museums and university buildings) is both astounding and wonderfully exciting.

I spent the first of my two (as I spent a day at Niagara Falls) wandering along Queen, Younge and Dundas streets, before going north on Spadina Avenue toward the Royal Ontario Museum via the University of Toronto campus and the Chinatown and Kensington Markets. I had researched some buildings I wanted to see during my visit, and was astounded when I came upon each one during a days wander. Alsop's "Sharp Centre for Design" was my favourite.

Daniel Libeskind's Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) was crazy - a refurbishment that literally engulfs an 1880's building with manic crystalline forms - meant to refer to Canada's mining history, I believe. The angles were quite vertigo inducing - I did enjoy playing with reflections and my camera though. I spoke to two business men involved with the museum outside, and they expressed disappointment at the building - saying they expected something "more" - something more outlandish and different. I was impressed.

On my last day in Toronto (before rushing off to catch the train to Halifax) I went to the CN Tower before walking through the St Lawrence and the Distillery Districts. The CN Tower is the largest free-standing structure in the world, and is pretty much Toronto's symbol - and first stop on any tourists itinerary.

Toronto is a vast city - although it doesn't seem that way on the ground. I was quite surprised when I arrived on the train at the visible 'tall' part of the city - I had expected that it would be much bigger. When I went up the CN Tower on my last day in Toronto, I got a much better feeling for the city. Toronto is a collection of taller high-rise areas amidst a much lower (and older?) urban grain. Lots of trees and parks make it very picturesque - it looks as though the high rises exist amongst some great forest - giant man-made trees. Not quite the case on the ground, but certainly better than the concrete alternative.

I put my ipod on as soon as I got to the top of the CN Tower - after paying the $22 entrance fee most of the circular viewing deck is dedicated to a fairy pricey cafe, most of which overlooks the city proper, possibly the most 'exciting' views. Needless to say (being persistently obstinate) I sat at one of the tables (with an amazing view), fended off the waiters and spent time sketching and contemplating the view. Madness. Especially as the Tower was built solely for communication purposes - only now the tourist / viewing component makes up to 3/4 of its income.

From up here my impression of the city's connection to the water was confirmed - nonexistent! Completely different to Vancouver. Most big cities that I have experienced have some connection to the water - be it a river, lake or ocean - and as Toronto lies next to Lake Ontario it is no different. However, the city itself has no tangible links to the water when walking around it, which I think is a great pity.

After breaking records (albeit personal bests - in true South African Olympic form) for laden-land-speed by running through Toronto trying to catch my train on time, I left the shining glass, steel and granite of Toronto behind. Sadly, as I really enjoyed my time there, but I do think that I will return. The train ride was very tedious; having spent 4 of the previous 6 days in trains, I was quite 'over it'! It was quite scenic though, especially when the train ran alongside Lake Ontario - one of the smallest of the Great Lakes, but still pretty damn big! I honestly expected to see the silhouettes of tankers or cargo ships offshore as one would in a port city.

I got into Ottawa quite late, and eventually found the hostel after fending off the attentions of 1. drunk homeless guys and 2. high local kids on their way out. I got them talking to each other, which gave me the opportunity to escape ;) The Ottawa Hosteling International (HI) is located in an old jail that was used until 1972. Quite interesting, I suppose, but not enough to justify the $8 tour fee.

Ottawa is the capital of Canada, apparently chosen as such by Queen Victoria only because she took a liking to some watercolour paintings of the area. The parliament buildings dominate the skyline, quite scenically situated on top of a hill overlooking Ottawa River and Gatineau (Quebec) on the other side. What I (as a visitor) think of as "Ottawa" is actually two cities - Ottawa (Ontario) to the south of the river, and Gatineau (Quebec) to the north. They are literally within a stones throw of each other, but have completely different administrations and even different public transport systems. Crazy.

I hit a bit of a 'wall' during my time in Ottawa - I was feeling the result of 6 weeks on the go, and had trouble getting out of bed each morning! I did spend lots of time at possibly my favourite building of all time though; the Canadian War Museum (Moriyama & Teshima Architects). Opened in 2005, I had investigated it during my thesis in 2006, and the real-life experience didn't disappoint. I highly recommend a visit, both for the fantastic architecture and the really well curated exhibitions within. Do take a day to do it though, and a friend to share it with as the content is very well presented, and as such quite emotionally draining.

On my second day in Ottawa was spent at (or in transit to and from) Gatineau Park; a huge tract of land just over the river in Quebec. Again, problems with public transport (the lack thereof) meant that I could only walk the comparatively short 6km close to the entrance of the park. It was stunning though; I was expecting something more 'park'-like (in the English sense) but it actually a huge forest latticed with hiking and cycling trails. Although I walked along a cycle track right next to the main vehicle route through the park (dodging the speedy bikes) there was a huge amount of life. Lots of squirrels (black, smaller red ones and the striped ground) and birds.

What I enjoyed most were the amazing fall colours of the trees. At times the sky seemed to glow yellow - the leaves overhead melded into a continuous blanket of colour, stitched together by dark threads of narrow spreading branches. The overall effect was lovely. Looking horizontally through the forest was also pretty - as the leaves all lie flat, they form bright stripes of colour, illuminated by shafts of light penetrating the canopy, against wonderfully variegated and textured trunks, all against the soft yellowy brown of the leaf-covered forest floor.

The other museum of note in Ottawa is the Canadian National Gallery; I particulary enjoyed the Group of Seven (a group of local landscape painters from the early 1900's), so much so that I almost missed my train for the second time in 3 days.

Toronto is an architect's city; Vancouver, an urbanist's. And Ottawa? Ottawa tries too hard; there I learned the lesson that that illusive concept- "atmosphere" - cannot be created.

Posted by tessab 17:08 Archived in Canada

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